Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Faith: Belief Without Evidence?

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A constant reproach brought against us by unbelievers is that Christianity's espousal of faith is an ignorant and cowardly retreat from brute reality. "Faith", to paraphrase one popular atheist, "is needed when there is a lack of evidence, or sometimes in the teeth of contrary evidence." It is the pride of scientists that they, it is asserted, proportion their belief exactly to the strength of the evidence. When empirical proof is strong, their belief is strong. When proof begins to fade, their belief is weakened. And when contrary proof finally arrives, belief is withdrawn altogether. The Christian's form of belief on the other hand, they derisively complain, refuses stubbornly to move with the shifting evidence. A faith that has "stood firm", despite its illogicality, is seen as praiseworthy; and the more absurd the belief, the more saintly the believer. The willingness to believe in something so stupendous as a miracle-working God, without clear and indisputable evidence, is regarded as an insane refusal to think.

We ought to begin by saying that, if this were an accurate description of the facts, as C.S. Lewis has well pointed out, the coexistence within the same species of religious people and scientific people would be quite astonishing. How a person who is trained in the sciences, who has learned never to a accept a hypothesis unless it is well-attested by experimental data and recommended by reputable journals—how such a one can turn around and profess belief in what is an allegedly chaotic mass of incredible stories—defies explanation. But it is at least clear from history that, considering how many scientific pioneers have also been men of deep faith, the whole story of the collision between faith and science cannot be as hopeless as usually thought.

The debate often turns on the distinction between belief and knowledge. A man says he believes something is true when his grounds for believing it comes short of absolute certainty. "I believe it is five o'clock," is said by a man who sees the sun just above the horizon on a winter day, because it is a reasonable deduction: though he admits he cannot say for sure. When a watch is produced, he says, "It is four forty-five," not with the uncertain vocabulary of estimates but with scientific precision. If someone asks me if there is milk in my fridge, I may answer, "I believe so," based on the presumption that that commodity is never allowed to disappear from the household. When I open the fridge and see the milk, my answer becomes "Yes". In the first case of both examples, I profess belief in a proposition on reasonable grounds; in the second case, the belief passes into knowledge.

Now we must apply this distinction to a more lengthy analogy to get closer to an understanding of how sensible people can believe in God. Say I am invited, along with my wife and baby, to a friend's house for dinner. I go ahead of my wife and baby to help my friend prepare, and my wife says she will arrive between 3:00 and 3:30 pm. The doorbell chimes at 3:10 pm, voices are heard at the doorway, and I hear the typical click-click of my wife's heels. If someone were to ask me if my wife had arrived, I would respond, "I believe so," but with only a moderate certainty, for it could well be another woman who had arrived with similar shoes. Now, if in addition to the foregoing evidence I heard a baby's squeal, my conviction would be stronger but still not absolute. If in addition I believed myself to have faintly heard my wife's own familiar voice, my belief would be strengthened to almost certainty, and I would say, "I am pretty sure she is here," but still without the absolute proof of seeing her form.

But we need to alter the circumstances of our metaphorical party to account for the apparent counter-evidences and doubts that arise in such belief: I am in the house, it is past 3:00 pm, I see my wife's bag and my baby's stroller, but I cannot myself spot them. I ask several visitors if they have seen my wife, and each of the respondents says yes, they believe they have seen her, but because of the density of the crowd they are not absolutely sure. I finally run into my best friend, a good, honest, and intelligent man, who has always proven to be a reliable source, and he tells me, "Yes. In fact, I was speaking with your wife not even five minutes ago." The unmistakable tokens of her presence, along with the consensus of the witnesses, and especially the confident attestation of my good friend, compel me to a nearly absolute conviction that my wife is indeed in the house. My conviction has not yet advanced to actual knowledge, because I have not verified the fact with my own eyes, but the signs and testimonies are so strong that my belief is virtually without doubt.

A skeptical friend enters the scene at this point to reprimand my credulity. "After all," he tells me, "you haven't actually seen her, have you?" I protest that I have very good reasons for believing and that I will probably see her very soon. "But look," my persuasive friend retorts, "your baby's stroller and wife's bag are both popular brands and could very well be owned by someone else in the house. Another woman might have the same shoes that you recognize when tapped. The visitors may claim to have seen her, but they admit they are not really sure. And as for your good friend, well, it is possible that he was delusional, or perpetrating an intentional act of deceit. Even the most honest men can occasionally surprise your by their dishonesty, you know, and I could cite many examples."

The logical case for God is couched in just such an evidence-versus-faith dilemma. On the one hand, I perceive evidences that clearly bespeak an Eternal Creator and Governor of the physical universe; on the other hand, it is always possible to sow misgivings here and there to render the case just sufficiently doubtful to confuse the mind. I expected my wife between 3:00 and 3:30; I saw my wife's purse and baby's stroller; I heard the testimony of so many others; and I was assured by a very dependable friend of her presence. Surely, she must be there…but am I absolutely sure? The honest reasoning of my brain leads me inevitably to that conclusion, and it could only be dissuaded from that result by an obstinate cynicism that refused to take seriously any proof that pointed in that direction.

My faith, therefore, would be the fixed resolution of my will to maintain belief in the deduced conclusion despite the challenges of contrary objections. It is not a mere unwillingness to hear opposite argumentation but a refusal to be swayed by its faulty logic. I will believe my wife is in the house, because that's what the case appears to reveal; and the nagging doubts suggested by my skeptical friend must be simply shut out of mind. The idea of "faith" commonly invented and ridiculed by unbelievers would be analogous to my desire to believe that my wife was in the house, when in fact no token of her presence could be found, and no one had ever claimed to have seen her. To believe in that way, in the complete absence of proof, in a sheer vacuum of reason, is a thing almost inconceivable. That is a caricature of faith that is artificially put up by antagonists to be swiftly and scornfully knocked down in an ecstatic frenzy of grunts and hurrahs.

But it must be said out of fairness that the unbeliever is not always ruled by a spiteful desire to eradicate faith wherever it is found. The skeptical friend described in our simple parable will be recognized by the reader of the Gospels to be a reflection of the Apostle Thomas. Although a number of good testimonies for the risen Lord were presented to him by reliable sources, he was adamant in his unbelief until the evidence was furnished before his very eyes. "Not until I see the print in his hands and thrust my hand into his side!" He has done us a great favor by his doubting; for his sober and incredulous mindset clearly rules out the possibility of any involvement in a supposed mass-delusion regarding the resurrection—an argument frequently invoked by unbelievers. But sadly, if Thomas were born in the 21st century rather than the 1st, it is very likely that would not have believed. Christ no longer treads our earth to show us the nail-prints. The same might be said of St. Paul: nothing short of a personal appearance by the risen Christ was capable of convincing him. But then, these two saints' disbelief have become a strong spur to belief for us; for we see that even the most energetic and animated propagators of early Christianity were not stupid and mindless cogs acting on a blind passion, but rather sober, shrewd, and judicious men who finally gave the reins to faith once the reason was satisfied.

There is one "evidence" in the party-parable that I have not stressed: hearing my wife's voice. That would be the final and unmistakable proof for the Christian mind. Once one has heard God's voice—not necessarily as an audible resonance, but any simple and clear "communication" from the divine—it cannot be doubted and will not be forgotten. And, alas, this greatest of proofs is simply inaccessible to the hardened atheist. Christ could not perform many miracles in Capernaum because of their unbelief, say the Gospels (Mark 6:5). For some inexplicable reason, in the sublime counsels of God, His own powers of doing wonders in human life are circumscribed or delineated by our very faith. It is no good trying to reassure the unbeliever that once he sees a miracle, he will believe. He will never see a miracle because he refuses to believe. The rich man in torments begged Abraham for permission to return from the dead and warn his living brothers to amend their lives. The request was refused—for, "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead" (Luke 16:31). Faith is, finally, an intimate trust in a God who always keeps His word. It stands upon good reasons and solid experience, and prudently refrains from making the impossible demand for "100 percent proof"—a condition that would prevent us from believing anything at all, from the details of ancient history, to the geology of the subterranean earth, to the chemical composition of water.

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